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Garnering survey responses can be a notoriously challenging task, facing headwinds such as general dissatisfaction with market research and survey fatigue. Consider that telephone survey response rates plummeted from 36% in 1997 to just 9% in 2012. For brands and researchers trying to improve response rates (basically everyone conducting research), new Gallup data on the use of incentives could provide some hope – if the researcher has the budget.

In a recent blog post, Gallup outlined the results of a study it undertook with a large university in the US to measure the effectiveness of pre-paid and post-paid incentives for a web-based survey. The survey was fielded among the university’s alumni: 10,000 were assigned to a group that received no incentive; 1,000 were assigned to a group that was promised a $5 gift card after completing the survey (post-paid incentive); and another 1,000 were assigned to a group that received a $5 gift card in the survey invitation (pre-paid incentive).

The results show that the incentive had a large impact on response rates. While the group not receiving the incentive had a response rate of 13%, those with incentives averaged much higher rates. In fact, those receiving post-paid and pre-paid incentives averaged a response rate roughly 50% higher, at 20% and 19%, respectively.

What’s interesting to note is that Gallup found the demographic profile of respondents to be consistent across all groups – suggesting that the incentive didn’t have a higher appeal to any particular income group.

Gallup indicates that a post-paid incentive might be more cost-efficient, as it’s only delivered to recipients completing a survey as opposed to the entire target population. That’s especially the case for a web-based survey; for a mail survey, the cost of the mail needs to be taken into consideration as a post-paid incentive would require multiple mailings per respondent (the initial survey and then the incentive).

While these results are based on a single survey among US university alumni, it’s worth noting that a previous piece of research found that financial incentives are at the heart of a majority of survey participants’ reasons for participating in research. In that study, cash was the preferred way of receiving a reward for the largest share of respondents, followed by virtual gift cards.

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